In recent months, a petition is being circulated in the streets of Haifa in an effort to block the advent of electric-train service in this northern city. While no one objects to switching from diesel fuel to electricity, residents want their voices heard as planning proceeds in a project which will have significant ramifications for their lives.

Whether as a result of last summer's protest movement or of the persuasiveness of the petition's organizers, the citizens of Haifa are becoming increasingly engaged. From the perspective of those seeking signatories for a petition to block the project, there is a real sense of public inclusion and participation. Opponents to the plan are ready to stand up to Israel Railways, which sees them as a stumbling block to their grand design for nationwide electrification of the railway system.

Currently, trains pass through the main urban center of Haifa, which is comparable to a situation whereby the train in Tel Aviv were to pass from Jaffa to the Reading power station along the Herbert Samuel promenade. However, Israel Railways claims there is no time now to find a suitable solution in Haifa, since the company is already in the process of electrifying the national rail system, so one will be found later.

"This is an absurd argument, since the project is very costly and, once finished, will never be altered," says architect Dr. Einat Kalisch-Rotem, chairman of an association of architects in Haifa, and until recently a lecturer in the faculty of architecture at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

Kalisch-Rotem is part of a local citizens' protest group called the Movement for Restoring the City to Haifa. She says that, regretfully, her city is losing its status as a major urban center in Israel.

"At present," she says, "the lower city is stagnating. The city cannot sustain another decade of a disintegrating economy. Even Yokneam, with its industrial park, is significantly more attractive."

Israel Railways is planning to electrify a total of 420 kilometers of railway lines, 20 of which run through Haifa, and is keen on rapidly completing the entire process. In 2011, a committee for protection of the coastal environment determined that 7 kilometers of the rail route through Haifa should be laid underground. But Israel Railways has informed local inhabitants that the electric-train line will go underground only near Hecht Park by the Carmel beach, and that solutions for the rest of the lower city will be found at a later stage.

An opportunity to correct a planning flaw created by the British - namely, the cutting-off of the city from its shoreline by railway tracks - is being lost because Haifa, apparently, is no longer a city worthy of serious consideration. As Kalisch-Rotem says, "Neither the Haifa municipality nor Israel Railways has carried out an impact survey regarding the implications of electrifying the train for the economics of the city. An environmental impact survey discusses the impact on birds, but the economic impact on the third-largest city in Israel is apparently not of sufficient importance."

'Waste of public funds'

The place with the best potential for being the true urban center of Haifa is the lower city, notes Kalisch-Rotem: "There are plans to turn it into a waterfront zone with commerce, tourism and residential areas. But the train running through it will destroy any chances of these plans succeeding. The mayor lost his confrontation with Israel Railways, and instead of receiving funds to take the train underground near Hecht Park, he received an alternative area which is not really attached to the city. This is a real waste of public funds and will thwart any reasonable solution to the problem."

One implication of the electrification plan is creation of a surrounding band of land that cannot be developed due to electromagnetic radiation. In addition to this radiation, a construction of 9-meter-high utility poles will further impede the development of the lower city.

For several years, City Hall has been pushing forward the concept of a so-called port campus, as the first stage of a wider plan to develop a waterfront zone. In spite of numerous obstacles, it appears that this concept is finally gaining traction, with multiple investors and academic institutions moving into the area. For her part, Kalisch-Rotem believes that should a tunnel for the train not be built there, the whole enterprise will be at great risk.

In addition to problems posed by the railway line, investors in the new campus project must wait patiently for both national authorities and the Haifa municipality to reach an agreement with the ports authority regarding transferral of the existing port to the north side of the city. Once implemented, this would enable smooth and easy access from the city to the seashore, which at present is largely inaccessible.

According to the Haifa city engineer, Ariel Waterman, "when we first started combating the scandalous barrier between the city and its shoreline, we insisted that the railway go underground first of all in the lower city. We understood that there were many obstacles to this, including the presence of antiquities and graves, as well as the need for construction of a new station. No one was willing to wait for electrification of the trains."

As far as Waterman is concerned, laying the new rail line underground near Hecht Park is a pilot project, which will affect tunnel construction in other parts of the city. "This was a pragmatic decision. Dealing with the city-to-seaside barrier is a lengthy process. Once we demonstrate a viable solution, the rest will be easier, and perhaps the utility poles will come down. We received NIS 500 million for running the train line underground. Anyone who takes this step lightly does not understand how these things work. This is a huge achievement, and Israel Railways is cooperating."

The port campus project is largely Waterman's "baby," and he insists that it is a success story. "The last four or five years have been amazing. We've cleaned up the area and have gotten rid of shady businesses and illegal construction. Both the municipality and the developers are involved in the project."

Even Israel Railways considers going underground a solution suitable for Haifa. The deputy CEO of Israel Railways, Yaron Ravid, admits that such a process will further the city's vision of linking the lower city to the shoreline, but argues that, "This is not the only problem faced by the city. There are still issues regarding both the civil and maritime ports, as well as other projects. The waterfront development project is a multi-year affair with multiple investment budgets. Electrification of the train should not become the driving force for this development."

According to Ravid, feasibility studies have shown that creating underground rail lines will cost $4-5 billion, with actual costs probably topping that.

"This is a complex and difficult project, which should not delay opening the line to Carmiel, scheduled for 2016," he says. "Why are Haifa's citizens more important than Carmiel's?"

Ravid claims that the cost of electrification of the train in the lower city area is NIS 30 million - a small fraction of the total cost of electrification, which will reach NIS 5 billion. Funds already invested should not, he adds, be a factor in impeding the construction of a tunnel, or in blocking a change to the train's route at a later date. Opponents are worried, however, that once facts on the ground are established, it will be impossible to change things.